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José Barreiro
Special to ICT

LA RANCHERIA, Cuba — The road to Cacique Panchito’s village of La Rancheria is long and windy, with the last 12 miles so steep and eroded that a Soviet-era tank truck is required to climb through its crevasses.

Panchito loves it that way, to be among his people and just a bit isolated. The community’s traditional and most trusted voice, and cacique, or chief, since 1974, Panchito is a deeply spiritual man of his own mountain, his own community. Along with his wife, Reina, he is beloved elder to many other elders, hundreds of families and thousands of Indian grandchildren in his overall clan of the Gran Familia Rojas-Ramirez.

A sign in the mountains of Caridad de los Indios, in the Guantanamo province in Cuba, announces the Indigenous autochthonous community of La Rancheria, home to Cacique Panchito, the longtime chief. (Photo courtesy of José Barreiro/Caribbean Indigeneity Project)

Persisting over centuries, some 30 or more communities of this historical Indian clan (estimated at some 20,000 people), live largely in farming communities but field many relatives in other professions such as teaching, medicine and public health, journalism and mechanical arts.

Among other groups of Native families, the Rojas-Ramírez clan are the most historically documented Native Cuban population. This is important in a country where an official dictum of early “Indian extinction” has dominated all discussion about contemporary Native communities.

I trekked up Panchito’s mountain one more time in mid-May, to meet with the elders and with new generation leadership. Rather than land in Havana, with all its cosmopolitan mystique, I opted to fly to the eastern City of Holguin, traveling by Jeep and car, and truck to visit friends and other guajiro relatives in the nearby Camagüey region, and then by tank-truck to the cacique’s autochthonous community of La Rancheria, in the mountains of Caridad de los Indios, province of Guantanamo.

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In the capital city, Havana, one can find the high brass, and plenty of spokesmen (some spokeswomen) on many sides of every subject. Havana is a journalist’s mecca and most foreign press in Cuba never leave the city.

This report is from Cuba Profunda — deep Cuba — visiting with Cuban farming people of the “interior provinces” or monte adentro. Through the plains of Camagüey and then, farther up the mountains, where one enters the old, high country of Panchito’s Gran Familia, we visited with private farmers and ranchers, and spoke with many people — the Indian farming families, who hosted a mountain gathering, also teachers, health workers, doctors, professors, journalists, restaurateurs, tourism officials, directors of cultural and economic institutions.

Camagüey impressions

Cuba is in very tough shape. Not since the “special period” of the 1990s, when the Soviet socialist partners collapsed and everything came to a standstill, has Cuba been in such dire economic straits.

“Ground Zero” it was called then.

“Now we are at minus-10,” said one well-informed driver, who, like so many drivers of classic cars turned to private transport, is of very modest means yet well-educated.

Sebastian drives us in his 1956 blue-and-white Ford, expansive of leg room and with a long, deep trunk. Like all Cubans who are living the severe deprivations of the moment, Sebastian has his opinions. In his late seventies, he has lived the Cuban Revolution from the beginning. Driving us in Camagüey, after several long treks taking me around, he shared his thoughts.

“The Cuban is a hard worker,” he said. “Our Cuban culture demands it. But now we are just surviving. We know how to survive, but it is a life of desperation. Our socialism system demanded much from us, and the Cuban people worked hard for their country and for the Revolution. It was our government. It was what we had. But today, we have almost nothing. The expected good things — medical service, we even have home doctors; our hospitals — have no resources. Most of the time, they have no medicines, even to operate, and treat patients.”

Cuban driver Sebastian carried author Jose Barreiro, a scholar emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, into the mountains of the island nation in his 1956 Ford. (Photo courtesy of José Barreiro/Caribbean Indigeneity Project)

In 2020, Cuba’s already weak economy contracted by 11 percent. There are many reasons. The Obama administration’s relaxed policy, which was providing for more tourism, family investments and rising expectations, hit a wall with President Donald Trump. Trump’s sanctions as of 2016, only now being relaxed under President Joe Biden, nearly paralyzed Cuba’s international banking policies for six years, criminalized investments and even remittances by families, and curtailed all American travel to the island. Then the pandemic dealt a most severe blow, collapsing the tourism industry, the central financial base that funds many basic services.

Much of the system is inoperable for lack of materials. Inflation, expected to crest at 500 percent, is tearing up prices. There is a strong exodus, particularly of young people, leaving through Nicaragua and Mexico. Worst, as always, is the scarcity of affordable food.

We travel by car, through Camagüey. The best cars are vintage American from the 1930s through the 1950s, and the drivers are all excellent mechanics. Among many master mechanics, who are legendary in Cuba, any driver is expected to know how to fix his own car and to be a master of his routes.

The Cuban population enjoys a high educational level. Many drivers have worked for state firms or are retired from medicine, education and other professions. Often, they know the country well and their insights are valuable.

Like all Cubans, we engaged, Sebastian was most troubled by the difficult food situation: declining food production, and organized bulk buyers who resell at inflated prices that many cannot pay.

Last summer, a burst of dissidence and protest hit the streets, with many desperate over conditions, some rioting and anti-police violence, firmly controlled. The protest was quickly invaded by social media strategies and rhetoric from Miami’s right-wing cartel, while in Cuba the critics were subsumed by the closing of ranks over security and pointing at U.S. hostility.

“Many here would welcome good changes and help, and even influence, from North America,” said a well-known cultural figure. “But the Americans can’t pretend to destroy our sovereignty or even this government, with 60 years of history. That is not going to happen.”

The fervor from Miami last year gave some Cuban people hope; it disturbed many others. In attacking the Cuban system, the commentary from Miami is easily hateful. A rhetoric of vengeance, with repeated calls in media for “strategic bombings,” for “invasion and annexation,” and even for “rivers of blood,” are hard to hear in a country that yearns for peace and struggles for even a meager prosperity.

The arguments in Cuba are not even about Fidel Castro and his militancy, a topic about which the range of emotion is always intricate and personal. Neither is there much trust, or even attention, to what is proposed for Cuba from Miami or Washington, D.C.

Small country, big fight

Cuba is difficult, tricky to understand and even harder to navigate. It makes most sense from the bottom up. Fiercely independent people, a 1960 revolution that challenged U.S. power, in Cuba first, later throughout the Western Hemisphere and then globally, even to South Africa. A small country, playing a global role. At home, waves of radical reform over 60 years brought some accomplishments, huge changes and diminishing results.

The severe U.S. policies only broil resentment. The historical antagonism between the U.S. and Cuba’s revolutionary government is deep and real. Yet, universally, Cubans are quick to call out the contradictory tangle of “legalities” and centralized government that have hobbled their own economy.

Alejandro Hartmann, a well-known Cuban historian, put it this way.

“U.S. has been very hostile. We are strangled from the outside, but we also tie up ourselves,” he said.

Julio Larramendi, a Cuban publisher based in Havana, agreed.

“We Cubans see clear that reforms are necessary. We know that small and medium businesses need to grow and produce independently.”

I mentioned this to our driver, Sebastian. We were talking about agriculture. Like most people, he is scandalized by the drop in agricultural production. Sebastian came from a farming family and later worked in state-run enterprises.

“The political thinking and university técnicos dominated, while the old knowledge people, they were disregarded,” he said. “This was very true in agriculture. The farmer families, what their old people knew, the real farmers. they were mostly passed over.”

In the farming countryside around the city of Camagüey, much land lies fallow and inundated with brush of invader species, predominantly the spiny African plant called marabú. There are many small farms and houses now for sale.

A Cuban guajiro plows his fields with oxen in the Camagüey region. The term guajiro, a term for a rural farmer, is drawn from the Taino word for "one of us."  (Photo courtesy of José Barreiro/Caribbean Indigeneity Project)

“The young people are migrating, particularly from the countryside, abandoning farms and monte,” said Sebastian, driving down the Central Highway of Cuba, watchful of constant and some major potholes. One hit knocked a bit of his steering out; he went over and under the hood to rig it in place with metal and wire. We drive on.

Antonio Rojas toasts the Native casabe, a flatbread or tort made from an ancient Taino tubor that regains popularity during times of scarcity. Rojas' agricultural family produces casabe near Holquin, in Cuba. (Photo courtesy of José Barreiro/Caribbean Indigeneity Project)

The small private farms in the region are holdouts from the previous era (pre-revolution), of traditional and historical guajiro families, with their long-inherited lands. These families kept substantial indigeneity in the planting and animal husbandry, the traditional medicines and curing ceremonies. Their family agricultural traditions and decision-making survived but were strongly submerged under local cooperatives that responded to centralized national plans. The private farms have been restricted and inhibited, among other controls, by the requirement to sell 80 percent of their crop to the state, and only the remaining 20 percent in markets. Now the country’s laws are finally cracking open a more unencumbered free campesino marketplace.

In the plains of Camagüey, the native guajiro (from the Taino, guaxeri, meaning, “one of us”) holds the culture of family farm homestead that has survived against all odds. To this day, the guajiro farms, passed down through generations as family farms, continue to produce 70 percent of Cuban crops. Not lost on the Taino inheritors in Camagüey and throughout the eastern region: grain flour for breads, lacking now in most of Cuba, is again replaced by the old Taino crop, a wonder tuber called yuca (manioc), with its flour and its ancient tort, called casabe.

Going to the cacique

We press east into the mountains, to the old Oriente, headed for the cacique’s community at La Rancheria. We are reconnoitering our strongest Taino descendent places, touching on the traditional agriculture. We also have a public event to plan for, where the Native communities will represent themselves. This is important, as the case for recognition in serious public events must be unrelenting. The cacique requested that I visit with him and elder grandmother Reina, at this time. The Gran Familia Sun and Moon Brigade, the bulk of the younger generation of community leaders, has pledged to converge at the cacique’s fire.

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Cacique Panchito, longtime chief of La Rancheria Indigenous community in Guantanamo, Cuba, is shown in 2016 with his wife, Reina, third from the left, and four daughters.  (Photo courtesy of José Barreiro/Caribbean Indigeneity Project)

The old Soviet-era truck made big noise as the big palm trees and then the thatch-roofed, circled caney came into view.

The caney (Taino for “roundhouse) is a ceremony space with a long history. Some men were making fire in the caney, others walking a yunta or team of oxen, back from a field of beans.

In the usual custom, all the houses turned out to greet us. A working group of leaders from the Gran Familia was gathered as well. Greetings, hugs all around, then Panchito called to me.

“Come, let’s go sit,” he said.

La Rancheria now has 11 families, down from nearly 40 houses 30 years ago, but is still a strongly Indigenous space. La Rancheria is recognized as an autochthonous village, a particularly symbolic settlement among the more than 30 communities and barrios of Rojas Ramirez families. The earliest Cuban history begins here, in these mountains. La Escondida is the sister community, less than a mile down the trail.

Ese es el escondite de Indios,” Panchito said. That is the Indians’ hideout.

Panchito’s people are well-documented in these mountains. Many of our people, like my own Camagüey guajiros, retain much old-time Indigenous knowledge and have Indigenous blood. But the Rancheria kinship in historical documentation is directly traceable to the abolition of the encomienda (early slavery/peonage of Indians) and the setting up of pueblos de indios in the late 1500s and subsequent centuries.

The caney, the Taino word for “roundhouse," shown here in May 2022, is a community meeting house for La Rancheria Indigenous community in the mountains of Caridad de los Indios, province of Guantanamo, in Cuba. (Photo courtesy of José Barreiro/Caribbean Indigeneity Project)

El Caney, near Santiago, is one of the pueblos. El Caney held a continuous Indian jurisdiction, until 1850, when a court decreed Indians as “extinct” and denied the Indian claims to a land base.

Hundreds of Indian families were expelled over time, to take refuge in the higher mountains. A line of caciques, tracing back to the 1600s and through the centuries, continues to have representation in the person of the elder Panchito (Francisco Ramirez Rojas), who was so selected by his people shortly after the death of Cacique Ladislao, an Independence War veteran, who held the title from 1920 to 1974.

“My son,” Panchito said to me. “Listen … Here, you find me old; I am blind. I can’t go to the fields, or harness an animal, I am mostly useless ...”

I began to protest. He shook his finger.

“No … I tell you that I am happy,” he went on. “Very happy, content. The group is here.”

“The group,” is comprised of young leaders who converge every so often to discuss projects among the families. These leaders from six communities also organize as the Sun and Moon Brigade, visiting the families, particularly elders, to fix or build structures, improve water systems, and help plant and harvest fields in the old guateque system of mutual help gatherings.

Panchito was in good spirits, too, because his own four farmers (two sons and two grandsons are campesinos) have been planting big fields, and increasing their animals, including oxen, cattle, lamb, goats, pigs, chickens and ducks.

“We are like in old times,” he said. “We can again guarantee our own food.”

This has been his dream and message in the 30 years I have known him: for the Indian communities, now spread out through eastern Cuba and other parts, to visit and reconnect spiritually, and to start working together again, in the guajiro way of planning and producing together.

For 30 years we have seen him, elder Reina, daughter Idalis, other community voices, travel the country, visiting Gran Familia homesteads and small communities. As cacique, everywhere he goes, he prays with tobacco, on Mother Earth and Father Sun, and encourages the agriculture in all communities. He likes to recall his old Cacique Ladislao, who said in 1969, “We the Indians are like a Gran Familia. The problem of one is the problem of all.”

Some of the younger folks had brought in our packs. Now they sat down to listen to the old cacique.

“It’s ours, our Indian tradition, to know how to do,” Panchito said. “It’s all here still, the corn, the beans, the yuca, boniato, other viandas (tubers). Our conuco planting knowledge, our knowledge for use of the forest medicines. Our animals. Now my daughter Almeida and her younger women have a good conuco. They are raising herbal medicines … small animals. When the old people said, ‘Don’t let the Indian tradition fail,’ that is what they meant for us to keep doing, and it’s the way we Indians can help our country … by feeding ourselves and feeding many others.”

The old man was beaming. “Tomorrow you must get out to the bean and corn fields,” he instructed me.

Cacique Panchito turns 88 this month. He claims to be blind, although his great-grandchildren don’t believe him. Sometimes the young tykes tease or tickle the old man. Often, he catches them and calls them out by name to their mothers.

“Yeah, he can see who we are,” claimed an eight-year-old.

“I can feel who they are,” said Panchito.

We had special days at La Rancheria. The cacique and his daughter Idalis ran a strong tobacco ceremony. We helped pick a field of beans one afternoon. Pigs and chickens were slaughtered, prepared and fed to the community. Much yuca, malanga, several varieties of beans. It was a good range to see.

We checked out new work on their water wells and a rebuilt thatch-roofed bajareque, a Taino design that is the most resistant structure for enduring a major hurricane.

A rebuilt thatch-roof bajareque, shown here in Cuba in May 2022, is believed to be the most resistant structure for enduring a major hurricane. It is based on a design from the Indigenous Taino people. (Photo courtesy of José Barreiro/Caribbean Indigeneity Project)

The working group met for a long discussion — 12 active adults, five women and seven men, with fruitful planning on community projects, in agriculture, in the passing of knowledge through the generations, education and research, small enterprise development, particularly those led by the women.

The group also discussed talks to be delivered at a forum in the City of Holguin the following Tuesday. It was a good challenge, to provide presentations on the survival of the extended Native Cuban family of Rojas Ramirez, at a center space of hispano culture in Holguin, the Casa de Iberoamérica. The event was billed as a debate on Cuban indigeneity, and it provided one more good opportunity to carry the Native position to wider audiences.

Panchito and Reina would not be coming; the elders want to stay in their mountain Rancheria. The cacique blessed the group.

“Before it was just me talking,” he said. “Now, you new ones know how to tell about us, and about yourselves. Go tell them.”

Reina, always smiling, said, “We watch you from here.”

The event in Holguin turned out to be a success. The intellectual elite was present and expressed congratulations on the Gran Familia panels. Importantly, the Cuban media came out for interviews.

The coverage of the Gran Familia India de Cuba was widespread, produced with interest and respect. While an occasional official voice might still be heard questioning an Indian movement in Cuba, the work of self-determined community projects is strong and popular.

The subject of indigeneity is proving popular with general Cuban audiences. The question of origins and foundational kinships and Mother Earth spirituality appeals to a new generation — peaceful, intelligent and capable, seeking to do what they can for the future of their people and their country.

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